WordWatching the Criminal Justice System

WordWatching the Criminal Justice System

The words we use to talk about sexual violence influence the way we perceive and respond to survivors. Using unaccountable language perpetuates a culture in which victims are devalued, sexual violence is tolerated, and perpetrators are not held accountable.

Word choices matter as we continue shifting the culture. But when it comes to holding offenders accountable in the criminal justice system, the words and phrases used to describe sexual violence can play an outsized role in determining whether justice is actually delivered.

That’s why King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg invited KCSARC to train its entire staff of 500 as Sexual Assault Awareness Month closed out.

KCSARC Legal Advocacy Supervisor Mary Laskowski oversees WordWatch, a component of KCSARC’s CourtWatch program, and provided the training to groups over three days.

During each session, she called up several examples of victim-blaming language used in news headlines, social media, or police reports. Laskowski urged participants to listen for and adjust language that blames victims or minimizes their experience. She also pointed out examples where descriptions implied consent where none could have been given.

“A headline that uses the phrase ‘man has sex with his preteen daughter’ implies rape of a child is consensual activity,” said Laskowski.

Another example is the term “child prostitute.“

“This conveys none of the brutality inherent in commercial sexual exploitation, and it silences and hides the violence young people experience,” she explained.

Language that implies consent is especially pernicious when it creeps into important documents involved in criminal justice cases, such as police reports or probable cause documents. Describing an assault as “fondling” or a rape as “sexual intercourse” removes the violence, coercion,or intimidation.

Heightened awareness of how language affects the way survivors and acts of violence are perceived led to one immediate change. A recently trained prosecutor flagged a database label that one law enforcement jurisdiction had been using to categorize certain assault crimes as “Lovers’ Quarrels.’ The jurisdiction agreed with the prosecutor and changed the label.

KCSARC is grateful for the opportunity to have this important discussion with those who prosecute crimes in King County. WordWatch has drawn attention from other agencies and jurisdictions that are seeking to improve the way survivors are treated and to hold offenders accountable.

Start your own WordWatch!

How often have you heard someone describe a sexual assault case with “He said, she said?” Sexual harassing language dismissed as “Locker room talk?” Or a sexual assault occurring between two people who may have just met dismissively referred to as “date rape?” Speak up and let others know how their words are heard. Ask whether the speaker truly means what they say. Our chart provides more examples, interpretations, and suggested substitute language.

We’re always looking to refresh our WordWatch training. Send us your examples at education@kcsarc.org.